Gronkowski playing time jumps to 70 percent, still sees only two targets

Gronkowski playing time jumps to 70 percent, still sees only two targets

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski saw his snap count jump significantly in Sunday's Patriots loss to the Bills, 16-0, but the number of impact plays he made remained minimal.

The All-Pro tight end continues to be limited by a hamstring injury he suffered on Aug. 15, but he played in 39 of 56 snaps against Buffalo, according to Pro Football Focus. The 70 percent participation rate is a sizeable increase from Week 3 when he made his regular-season debut and played 14 plays, which made up 23 percent of his team's total offensive snaps. 

Still, on Sunday, Gronkowski was barely a factor in New England's scaled-back passing game with rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett behind center. He saw two targets against the Bills, catching one for 11 yards and a first down on a third-and-eight play. It was the only third-down conversion the Patriots recorded in 12 tries versus the Bills. 

Against the Texans last Thursday, Gronkowski ran one just route, deep in Houston territory, and was overthrown for an incompletion. 

That Gronkowski's playing time is increasing steadily is an indication that his hamstring injury is progressing. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder acknowledged as much after the game. 

"I felt good today, went out there," Gronkowski said. "The coaches, training staff and everything, we just had a little plan, obviously, not to go every single play, but to build it back up. I felt good out there, felt good every time I stepped out there. Just got to keep on improving.

"It’s basically just up to me to get back to full speed. I’ve just got to go out to practice and do what I’ve got to do to get back to where I need to be."

With Tom Brady's suspension now over, the Patriots passing game figures to open up, which means Gronkowski -- if healthy -- will see more passes floated his way.

He'll still factor in as a blocker. He blocked on 24 snaps Sunday. But having him at full strength, and having him play over 90 percent of New England's offensive snaps, as he did last season, should give opposing defenses fits. 

When Gronkowski is paired with fellow tight end Martellus Bennett, especially, Brady will have two massive targets who are able to out-muscle smaller defenders and out-run bigger ones. On Sunday, Bennett continued his strong start with the Patriots, catching five Brissett passes for 109 yards. 

"He’s a great dude to work with, and he’s an unbelievable football player," Gronkowski said of Bennett. "I’m super happy he’s here with us. He’s a great guy to work with blocking-wise and in the receiving game, and we learn a lot from each other, so I can’t wait until we’re both out there at full speed together."

He may not be at full speed just yet, but Gronkowski's increased playing time suggests that the Patriots feel like he's at least headed in the right direction.

Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

File photo

Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

Johnny Manziel said 10 days ago, "I'd go to New England in a heartbeat," when asked about the Patriots as a potential landing spot.

That seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but they're taking a look at him...along with 12 other NFL teams, according to ESPN's Eric Williams. 

Tom Brady's current backup Brian Hoyer is, like Manziel, an ex-Cleveland Browns quarterback. Manziel would again be competing with Hoyer for the Pats' No. 2 job should New England take a chance on "Johnny Football", the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems.

FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman had it at 12 teams watching Manziel work out at the University of San Diego and said the Patriots gave Manziel a weigh-in.


Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

The Patriots have agreed to re-sign offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, his agent Scott Casterline confirmed on Twitter.  Waddle hit unrestricted free agency when the new league year began and made a visit to the Cowboys earlier this week. In the end, though, he chose to return to the team that claimed him off of waivers at the end of the 2015 season.

Waddle, who turns 27 in July, appeared in 12 games last season for the Patriots. He was the first right tackle the Patriots turned to when Marcus Cannon suffered an ankle injury mid-season against the Chargers. He ended up playing 51 snaps against the likes of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram without allowing a sack. He then started the next three games against the Broncos, Raiders and Dolphins and held star rushers Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Cameron Wake -- all of whom rush primarily off of the offensive right -- without a sack. 

Injuries forced Waddle (380 snaps on the season) to split the right tackle position with Cameron Fleming (543 snaps), but he was the primary backup when healthy. Waddle started the Divisional Round playoff game against the Titans but suffered a knee injury and was removed for Fleming. 

Both Fleming and Waddle visited the Cowboys this week, and the fact that Waddle has re-signed with the Patriots may impact Fleming's decision moving forward. 

The Patriots went to great lengths to build tackle depth last season, and adding Waddle to the roster helps them retain some of that depth after losing their left tackle, Nate Solder, to the Giants via free agency. Waddle could be an option on the left side, but the vast majority of his work since entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2013 has been on the right side. 

The Patriots now have Fleming, Marcus Cannon, Cole Croston, Tony Garcia and Andrew Jelks on their depth chart at tackle. Croston, Garcia and Jelks are all headed into their second years as pros. Croston remained on the 53-man roster all season -- an indication that the Patriots liked him enough not to expose him to the waiver system -- but did not see meaningful snaps. Garcia and Jelks both missed the entirety of the 2017 season on reserve lists. 

Once the Patriots lost Solder to the Giants, it seemed to be of paramount importance that the Patriots re-sign either Waddle or Fleming. Behind Cannon, there were simply too many question marks not to have one return. The Patriots could opt to draft a tackle, but this is considered an average year at that position in that there are few ready-made NFL players and several developmental types.

Before the Super Bowl last season, I asked offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia how the team was able to manage offensively with backups at right tackle for much of the season. 

"It's not like [Fleming and Waddle are] not good players," Scarnecchia said. "They are good players. Their skill set seemed to fit that position pretty well. They have the traits that we covet. And they're both really smart guys, very willing learners, and they're both driven to be good and they want to play good. And I think all those things have manifested themselves when they've been out there playing. And we've been very, very pleased with what they've done for us this year, essentially splitting that position."

Asked about the aspects of the game the Patriots worked on with both Waddle and Fleming last year, Scarnecchia said, "For us it transcends everything. Obviously run-blocking and pass-blocking. They're both good at those things. Are they great at those things? No. But they've been able to steadily improve over the last two years to the point where we put them out there and no one's worried. And it's been that way the whole season after Marcus got hurt. Yeah they've done a nice job for us."